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  • On Writing Sleepwalkers
  • Joginder Paul (bio)

On a visit to Karachi in the mid-eighties, I found I had come to a wonderland. All its people were walking, talking, or whatever, in deep sleep. What was most amazing was that the wonderland looked very familiar! There were so many Uttar Pradesh towns there—situated, I felt, even in the same geographical dimensions. As for the people—they spoke the chaste Urdu that reminds one of pre-Partition days, when it was spoken more for aesthetic pleasure than for communicating. I would often turn to look questioningly at my host, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, a fellow writer in Urdu. The literary critic in him would shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, I would be grateful if you could explain our melodrama to me."

Ali is, in fact, the original of Ishaq Mirza, whom I conceived before any other character in Khwabrau (Sleepwalkers) and whose forthright bearing provided me with the ending of the novel for which I had to work out the beginning. I found Ali completely involved, like Ishaq, in the here and now—unlike most other Karachi mohajirs, who cannot live their present except in the past tense.

Ali took me to Amroha, Gorakhpur, Meerut, even Malihabad. You won't believe what followed. Before he ventured to take me into the thick of Karachi, he abruptly stopped and said with a gleeful sneer, "From here we shall go forth and witness the grandeur of our great Lucknow…"

As in India, so in Karachi. The scene led us into the same stationary hubbub of Ameenabad of Lucknow. Roads come here, leisurely sauntering in from numerous directions, each with its cap tipped slightly on one side of the head. And just as they spot one another at the Chowk, they push themselves forward to become permanently frozen in an embrace. The immense Chowk presents the same clusters of poori-bhajiwalas, kababwalas, mithaiwalas. And when you have had a bellyful of these delicacies, a light-footed itrawala will approach you respectfully from nobody knows where. Ali eyed me, enjoying my disbelief. "Your whole Lucknow has walked away here into our Karachi, hasn't it? I wonder what's left there."

"The Punjabis," I told him, "who insist on speaking their Urdu in Punjabi!" [End Page 144]

Once, well past midnight, Ali and I happened to visit a restaurant in the Lucknow of the mohajirs. The restaurant was as astir with activity then as it must have been in its peak hours. My friend remarked that "Lukhnavis" were in the habit of walking out of their dreams to come straight to the Chowk. He assured me that these sleepwalkers would keep popping in till the small hours. Khwabrau was thus born in my mind. And months later, when it became ripe for delivery, I prepared myself for what I knew would be a hassle-free labour.

People ask, Why did the mohajirs forsake their homes in India to migrate to Karachi?

And, why, when your home is on fire, don't you flee it to go elsewhere? Isn't this also how millions of Punjabis, who habitually knew a Hindustani to be one from outside Punjab, suddenly woke up from a nightmare to find themselves in Hindustan? A short story of mine, "Panaahgah" (The Shelter) seeks to depict how post-Partition communal clashes cast their shadows as far as today. In the story, middle-aged Mirasen is the only Muslim inhabitant left behind in a village in Hindustani Punjab after a terrible communal riot. She is disgraced, beaten, repeatedly raped. The poor ignorant woman does not even know where all of her kinsfolk have gone. "Why, we have packed them off to Pakistan!" her erstwhile non-Muslim friends jeer. "Why don't you follow them?" Her kith and kin have actually been temporarily moved to a refugee camp in a neighbouring town. Mirasen is one day found, unconscious with fever and fatigue, by the kindly Sarpanch who takes her in his oxcart to the camp. In the last lines of the story, she opens her eyes late in the evening in the pale electric light, and a young Hindu doctor of the camp affectionately...


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pp. 144-147
Launched on MUSE
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